Why Is Breathing So Essential To Yoga Practice?
Breathing and yoga will always be intertwined with one another. Think about some of the main reasons for doing yoga – to relieve stress, improve your mental lucidity, and promote better health overall. While yoga's physical aspect has been long recognized as necessary to reach these goals, the role of Breathing and breathwork is all too often understated.
But Breathing is an essential component of your practice because it helps adjust your emotional state while moving from one posture to the next. Your breath works towards reducing stress and anxiety. Nothing resets the mind and the body like a deep, cleansing breath full of fresh oxygen.
Four Types of Breathing
The act of Breathing sounds pretty simple. You inhale and exhale. We do it all day long, right? Well, yes and no. There are actually four different styles or patterns of Breathing, each with certain advantages towards relaxing the mind, and each focused on other parts of the body. We call this yoga breathing.
1. Thoracic Breathing
With this Breathing style, you are expanding your lungs with each inhale, drawing air upward and out. As you exhale, the lungs drop back. The actions of this type of Breathing focus mainly on the thorax. This is an essential type of breathing to know if you want to understand Breathing while practicing yoga correctly.
2. Clavicular Breathing
Each inhale of breath should be centered towards the upper area of the lungs and felt near the base of your neck. In turn, your clavicular area should rise, including the shoulder and collar bone. Exhale slowly, pushing the air out first from the bottom of the chest, followed by the neck.
3. Abdominal or Diaphragmatic Breathing
Drawing long, deep breaths into the abdomen while focusing on expanding the diaphragm and ribs is diaphragmatic breathing. Alternatively, abdominal Breathing, also known as belly breathing, places that focus on the abdominal organs, and less on the ribcage. The former is hard to master, while the latter typically feels more natural and is far easier to learn. But in either instance, these types of Breathing are ideal for reducing stress and anxiety and play a vital role in your practice.
4. Yogic Breathing
The fourth type of Breathing combines all three of the previous types. Take in an extended, slow inhalation to fill up the body's abdominal and chest areas along with the shoulder and neck portions. When you exhale, breathe out from the stomach, followed by the chest, then the shoulder and neck to complete your release of breath.
The action of regulating your breath is known as Pranayama. Pranayama is an essential part of your yoga practice as it incorporates breathing exercises in which the breath works with the body through a sequence of moves and poses. Inhalations and exhalations are just as important as when to hold the breath. Here are some common Pranayama techniques to start out with.
Basic Breath Awareness
Like it says, you want first to begin identifying where the strengths and weaknesses lie with your breath. Analyzing these factors can help you understand how to control your yoga breathing and utilize that during your practice.
- Do it wherever and whenever.
- Breathe through the nose and monitor how you inhale and exhale.
- Gauge the speed and duration of each breath.
- This is not an opportunity for adjustment, simply observation. That's all.
Nadi Shodhana Pranayama (Alternate Nostril Breathing)
Learning to breathe by alternating back and forth between each nostril during inhalation and exhalation helps to enable a greater exchange of energy and life force throughout the body. In practical terms, this method's scientific impacts found advantages for lowering blood pressure and calming nerves.
- From a seated position, hold your hand with your thumb and ring finger extended out.
- Using your thumb, close your right nostril and inhale through the left.
- Close the left nostril with the ring finger and exhale through the right.
- Next, inhale through the right, then shut it with your thumb.
- Open the left and exhale.
Kapalbhati Pranayama (Breath of Fire)
This technique focuses on rapid breaths and is well-known for its sympathetic effect on the nervous system. You can also rely on the Breath of Fire method to help wake up the brain and allow you to make clear decisions faster under pressure. But don't try this technique when you're already feeling stress, as you will most likely just make it worse.
- Again, this is best done when you need a little boost of energy. Pull in a strong deep inhale and then exhale slowly.
- Inhale again and start to exhale in quick spurts, using the lower abs to do the work.
- The inhalations will be static between each quick exhale you perform.
Ujjayi Pranayama (Victorious Breath or Ocean Breath)
When you think Pranayama, you think ujjayi. It's a soothing method of slow Breathing that brings calm and serenity to mind and body. This likely comes from the soothing sound this type of Breathing produces, akin to that of the ocean.
- Inhale through the nose, open your mouth and exhale, opening the throat so that you are producing a "haaaa" sound.
- You will find your attention focused more closely on your Breathing as a result.
- Repeat a couple of times, then try closing your mouth, keeping your throat open to make the same "haaaa" sound, and exhaling through your nose instead.
Sheetali Pranayama (Cooling Breath)
An ideal breathing technique for cleansing the blood and giving your body the rejuvenation it desperately needs. It's been named "cooling breath" because it allows excess heat to escape the body and reduces feelings of nervousness, depression, and fear. When you need just to cool it (quite literally) and relax, this is the one to try.
- Stick your tongue out in a rolled shape. If you can't do that, just purse your lips to make a circular shape for air to pass through.
- Inhale through the tubular shaft of your tongue, so you feel the cool air being sucked in.
- Bring your tongue back in and close your mouth, exhaling through the nose.
- Repeat the whole process until you can feel the cool air across your tongue and the roof of the mouth in long sustained inhalations.
Looking for more great insights like this to help you with your yoga practice? then check out the Yoga Society blog
Kumbhaka Pranayama (Breathing Retention)
This is an excellent exercise for helping to improve your ability to inhale and hold your breath. The theory here is that when you hold your breath, the pressure increases inside your lungs, allowing them to expand to their full capacity. Bringing more air into your lungs allows for the blood to become better oxygenated.
- You can start by inhaling and holding your breath for ten seconds.
- At the end of your count, do not exhale, but instead, inhale more air.
- Hold for as long as you are able. Exhale when you tire.
- Do not overdo it, and if you feel like you need to start more slowly, inhale and hold for three seconds before inhaling again.
How to use your breath in Asana practice
When it comes to learning how to breathe in yoga, aligning your inhalations and exhalation with your practice is paramount.
When Bending Forward – Exhale
Exhaling empties the lungs and, in turn, reduces the mass of your torso. In addition, your heart rate slows as you exhale, which promotes relaxation. Therefore, you want to exhale as you bend forward as this action is a pose that induces calm.
When Lifting or Opening Your Chest – Inhale
The action of lifting or opening your chest allows for the diaphragm to take in more air. Remember, inhalations help to boost alertness and increase the speed of your heart rate. So it makes sense to inhale when you open the chest cavity as these postures are typically introduced into a sequence as a means for promoting energy.
When Twisting – Exhale
Again, we're talking about physical space in the body. So exhaling during a twist empties the lungs and allows the rib cage to have more space to twist further. A twist is also designed to ring out the body, releasing the toxins within, and when you exhale, you're also eliminating carbon dioxide from your system.
Five Breathing Tips
We've covered the how's, what's, and why's of yoga breathing, now we're going to review five of the most helpful tips for incorporating successful Breathing into your practice.
Breathe In And Out Through The Nose
Using the nose to inhale and exhale is an excellent way for focusing the mind on the here and now, bringing calm and stability. It's also an excellent technique for controlling your body temperature and heart rate.
Identify And Understand The Type Of Breathing
As we discussed above, get to know your Breathing as intimately as you know any other part of your body. Once you've done a complete diagnosis of your Breathing, the rest will come much easier to you. So just sit and practice your inhalations and exhalations. Start slow and short and once you get more comfortable and knowledgeable about how you breathe, work towards longer counts of taking air in and expelling it out.
Why Are You Short Of Breath?
Think about the most common reasons you're out of breath. Now consider what actions you are performing during that time. When you feel a shortness of breath, it means your body needs to pause. Listen to your body every time, all the time. Take a break when you feel like it's time to stop.
'Breathe Into It'
How many times have you heard that exact quote from one of your yoga teachers? It's often said when you are working through a challenging pose. What does this phrase mean anyway? It means that your Breathing can assist you by releasing tension and relaxing the body to become more capable of achieving that challenging posture.
Let The Breath Guide You
Another aspect of self-awareness is to let your breath guide you along. This will keep you in touch with how your body is managing through your practice, and you can decide how far you want to go in challenging yourself. You may choose to throttle it back a little and take it easy. Your breath will be a vital factor in helping you determine how to proceed.
Related: What Is Restorative Yoga?
Four Benefits of Mindful Breathing
When you have your Breathing under control, you can enjoy a wide range of benefits:
1. Longer Life
Breathing is paramount to a strong yoga practice. Routine exercise has been shown to fight chronic inflammation, which can lead to Alzheimer's, depression, cancer, and heart disease. When your Breathing is under control, you can then start to control other important aspects of your health and well-being.
Remember, the core concept behind your yoga breathing is to adjust your emotions and mood during asana. Incorporating mindful Breathing into other facets of your life beyond the yoga studio can increase your overall happiness.
3. Weight Loss
Yoga breathing can help raise the leptin levels in the body, which can act as a natural appetite suppressant. It's a hormone we all produce through our fat tissue, and it tells the brain to shut down feelings of hunger.
4. Greater Exercise Stamina
Mindful Breathing supports helpful inhalation and exhalation that allows for about 70% of the lungs' surface area. In turn, this helps to maximize the levels of oxygen in the blood, the muscles, and joints.
We don't always think about our Breathing even if we are doing it 24 hours a day. A strong yoga practice can help you adjust and rethink your breathing routines so you can get the most benefits from a healthy intake of oxygen into your body.
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